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These Senators Are All Talk, No Action on Cannabis Legalization

January 10, 2018
‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Deputy Editor Bruce Barcott’s weekly column on cannabis politics and culture.

Talk is cheap. In Congress it goes for pennies on the pound.

In the days following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to rescind the Cole memo, politicians around the country raised their voices in outrage.

Many have spoken out against Jeff Sessions. But who has acted? We tallied the votes.

Governors, state attorneys general, and members of Congress issued statements and tweets about states’ rights. They pledged to protect adult-use laws and the rights of medical patients.

But who has acted? Almost no one, so far.

In fact, a number of senators who expressed a burning desire to halt Sessions and his cannabis-hating crusade in its tracks have not so much as signed on as a co-sponsor of any of the four major pieces of legislation addressing the issue in the US Senate. As of mid-January, one of the most powerful bills—Sen. Cory Booker’s Marijuana Justice Act—had only a single co-sponsor, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden.

The four Senate bills currently treading water in the upper chamber are:

  • The Marijuana Justice Act (S. 1689)Sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), this act would get the federal government out of the marijuana prohibition business. Bonus: S. 1689 contains equity provisions for those people and places most damaged by the war on drugs.
  • The CARERS Act (S. 1374)Prior to Booker’s MJA (above), this was the strongest serious measure brought forth in the post-2012 era. The bill would extend the principle of federalism to State drug policy, provide access to medical cannabis, and enable research into the plant’s medicinal properties.
  • The SAFE Banking Act (S. 1152)Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), this bill would create protections for depository institutions that provide financial services to cannabis-related businesses.
  • The Small Business Tax Equity Act (S. 777): Sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), this bill amends the Internal Revenue Code to exempt a trade or business that conducts marijuana sales in compliance with state law from the prohibition against allowing business-related tax credits or deductions for expenditures in connection with trafficking in controlled substances. It effectively ends the IRS’s glaring 280E rule, which economically hobbles legal cannabis companies. 

Especially glaring: California Sen. Kamala Harris, the rising Democrat representing a state with more than 47,000 jobs tied to legal cannabis. California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, is notoriously anti-cannabis and not expected to change anytime soon. So the actions of Harris may be critical in terms of safeguarding an industry worth an estimated $2 billion to $5 billion. Among legalization advocates, Harris was trending as a political target on Twitter this past week:

I’ve compiled a table of senators from the eight legal adult-use states, their public words on the Sessions move, and their actions in the senate, below.

Senators from Legal Adult-Use States:

Click on table to enlarge.

2017 cannabis jobs count: Legal marijuana supports 149,304 Americans

It’s Not Just the Legal States

Surprisingly, much of the support for the Senate’s leading cannabis measures comes from elected officials who don’t represent adult-use states. Some come from states where medical cannabis is legal. Some, like Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT), hail from places where nearly all forms of cannabis are highly illegal.

And some, like Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, talk a big game but so far have delivered big fat zeroes when it comes to co-sponsorship of cannabis bills.

Senators from Other States:

Click on table to enlarge.

Who’s Acted on Their Convictions?

I do have a roll of honor, though it’s a short one. The senators with the strongest record of standing up for patient protections, states’ rights, and the cannabis industry are:

  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), initial sponsor of both the CARERS Act and the Marijuana Justice Act.
  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), co-sponsor of the CARERS Act and the SAFE Banking Act.
  • Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who’s both co-sponsored bills and taken the lead this past week in resisting Sessions.
  • Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), Gardner’s quieter compatriot from Colorado, defending his state’s cannabis jobs.
  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), creator of the Small Business Tax Equity Act, to end the injustice of IRS Rule 280E.
  • Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), creator of the SAFE Banking Act to allow legal businesses in his state to bank safely.
  • Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), a newcomer to the cause, co-sponsor of both CARERS and SAFE Banking.
  • Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), whose state isn’t even medical-legal, but continues to support liberty on this issue.

Notice anything odd? Yes: There are both Republicans and Democrats on the honor roll. Cannabis is a bipartisan issue.

I urge you to call the members of Congress from your state and ask them what they’re doing this week to support and protect state cannabis laws.

Liberty, Jobs, and Freedom: How Cannabis Became a Conservative Issue
Bruce Barcott's Bio Image
Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

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